One-Chord Soloing, Part 1

February 16, 2012
By John Novello

Considering how difficult soloing over constantly changing chord progressions can be, you’d think it’d be a breath of fresh air to solo over just one chord or mode. On the one hand, that’s true, but on the other, it can be extremely challenging to keep a one-chord solo interesting over an extended length of time. Here are a few tools to help solve that problem. The concepts involved come in three main categories: melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic. We’ll focus on the melodic methods this month; next time, we’ll tackle the harmonic and rhythmic ones.

1. Intervallic Playing
The idea here is to restrict yourself to certain intervals during a solo. These restrictions create a variety of interesting structures, which further break down into five subcategories:

Ex. 1a. Strict Intervals
In Ex. 1a, we decide on a certain pattern of strict intervals, such as perfect fourths or minor seconds, and pretty much play just that combination. Although this approach will sometimes take us out of the key center, the intervals’ inherent patterns still make melodic sense and add color and tension.
Ex. 1b. Altered and Inverted Intervals
In Ex. 1b, instead of a strict pattern as above, let’s add in a little spice by throwing in altered and/or inverted intervals. Try any fourth (perfect or augmented) and any second (major or minor) as well as their inversions:
perfect and diminished fifths, and major and minor sevenths.
Ex. 1c. Occasional Foreign Intervals
Ex. 1c is similar to examples 1a and 1b, except that you occasionally give relief to the intervallic pattern for various musical reasons with a foreign interval that’s not part of the pattern—then you resume the pattern.
Ex. 1d. Recurring Intervals
Ex. 1d employs recurring intervals. This is simply repeating the same interval in any pattern, in or out of the tonal center. The interval can also be altered or inverted.
Ex. 1e. Freely Combining Intervallic Techniques
In Ex. 1e, we just freely combine all of the above. As an aside, though intervallic playing works especially well over one chord or the tonal center, adding much-needed color and tension, it can also be applied to any set of
chord changes.

2. Scale Strategies
One of my favorite techniques involves building alternate scales that nonetheless work with the chord over which I need to solo.
Ex. 2a. Scales Within Scales
Ex. 2a is what I call “scales within scales.” I simply start a new scale that begins on any note of the scale that goes with the chord over which I’m soloing. In this example, the scale is E symmetrical diminished, which  starts on the third of Cmaj7#11. This gives me more improv material for soloing over that chord.
Ex. 2b. Superimposing Scales
In Ex. 2b, instead of playing in the proper scale or mode, I superimpose a different scale over the chord change. Then, when the chord changes, I change to another superimposed scale, and so on. This works best with strongly identified scales like whole tone, symmetrical diminished, pentatonic, and blues.
Ex. 2c. Chromatic Scale
In Ex. 2c, I experiment with varying the intervals of the chromatic scale. This scale states no tonality of its own, but really adds a lot of color and variety. It works best if you start on a chord tone, play chromatically, and
then land on some other chord tone. This keeps things musical.

On Practicing
“The goal of correct practice is freedom to express yourself musically, without doubts and reservations tripping you up in the moment of improvising,” says John Novello, whose method The Contemporary Keyboardist is considered the gold standard of modern keyboard instruction. “If you do enough thinking during practice, you won’t overthink when performing.” Learn more from John at
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